Cuba – where music and rum runs in your arteries and vintage cars rule the street.

What is Cuba famous for? Their vintage cars, the Cigars, the invigorating music that you hear every corner, the rum, and the fact that they are stuck in time. Walking around in Havana is like going back in a time capsule and I loved every minute of it. Yes, you see public phones at every corner and they are actually used! You go back to the old fashioned way of telling someone to meet at 7pm and you show up without a change in location or time because you can’t whatsapp them, and I loved it. It’s also one of the safest city in central and South America because it’s the only place I went dancing till 1am and took a taxi home with no problems!

Speaking about dancing, I love music but I can’t salsa, bachata or rumba but I sure can move my body your music and you will find zealous Cubans eager to teach you too. Have some fun, drink a few daiquiri and/or mojito and just let the music move your body and soul. Here’s the scoop on where to go.

Hotel Florida – salsa nights are on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Starts around 8pm.

1830 (mil ocho) – salsa nights are Fridays through Sundays, go post 10pm.

Fabrica de Arte – This place is by far my favourite place in Havana. It’s so cool as an art scene but it also has live music like hip hop or rock. Opens from 8pm on Thursdays till Saturday. Lines start from 9pm but move rather quickly.

Callejon de Hamel – Sundays from 12pm. Yes, they start at noon on Sundays. It’s an outdoor space on the highly graffitied street. This spot is for Rumba, the Afro Cuban music and you get to see performances all day and night. It’s very crowded with locals and there is dancing and trance like dances by local afro Cubans. It’s the dance from the Afro Cuban religion and if you see people dressed in all white, that is the initiation process for them. I went at 1230pm – 2pm and left because it got too crowded and I needed lunch. The vibe is very cool and you won’t be able to help yourself moving your body to the hypnotic beats. You will also find the trance like dancing very interesting. Rumba is all about the shoulders so move your shoulders to the beats! When I walked back in the evening, they were still rocking the place and they play till midnight.

I love vintage cars and that was one of the reasons why I went to Cuba – to have a tour in one, and I did! I booked an airbnb experience with Jorge Luis and it was great. He speaks really good English and you will cover the main sights in Havana, including the fort, Hotel Nacional, the big Jesus Christ statute, revolution square and the lungs of Havana – the botanical gardens, in 3 hours in a beautiful vintage car. If you travel alone, this is a good deal as I paid US40 for the tour and I shared the car with 3 others. If you come in a group of 3-4, the vintage cars along Capitolio will take you for about 35-40CUC per hour so it works out to be about that same, but you won’t get the same information about the place if you went with a guide.

I did the free walking tour in Havana too and at 930am or 4pm daily, they start at the paved junction near capitolio between San Rafael and Consulado. The guide I had, Gino was really funny and it was his first English tour so I kinda learnt Spanish too 😂 he also gave us tips on where to eat and dance and I met him dancing in 1830 too! The tour brings you around the old Havana. If you wish, you can also just walk around on your own and stumble upon the different streets. The main tourist street is Obispo and its almost where everything is.

Cuba has the highest number of doctors per capita. So many that exporting their doctors to South America is one of their main sources of income, as with exporting medicine internationally for type 2 diabetes. The second source of income for Cuba is tourism, that’s you and me, which is why Cuba is one of the safest places for a tourists, which is great news for us.

The tour also helped me understand that even though the salary is low, Cubans get education, medical and basic food like rice and beans for free with coupons. There is also no homeless people on the streets because everyone has a house. If you are a man sleeping on the street, he was either too drunk and fell asleep or his wife kicked him out of the house. So now I understand why they can survive on 30CUCs a day. Also, if you see stores that sell food without seats, they’re usually made for Cubans and the cost is less than 1CUC for a burger or sandwich or fried chicken. I tried the burger and it was pretty decent. The best part of joining a tour is you make friends and the friends I made, we went dancing together on the nights after! Cool eh?

If you love museums like me, one of the best ones here is the Nacional Museum of Bellas Arte, Arte Cubano, 3 blocks away from the Manzana Hotel.

The museum of revolution just beside it is also worth a visit. I was impress by the vintage planes it has on show.

I watched a contemporary dance show at the Gran Teatro de Alicia Alonso. It’s one of my favorite buildings in Havana because it’s so beautiful day and night and inside was also very pretty. The show for us is about 30-35 CUCs which is a steal as the show was really good. A tour of the building would already cost you 10 CUC if you want to take photos. Locals pay less if it’s a Cuban performance and I think that’s really fair.

Do remember to head to San Francisco square where you can touch the beard of this statue for good luck. He’s the French fugitive that everyone loves and of you make a wish touring his beard and finger with one foot on his foot, it will come true. Also, go up to the 3rd floor of the church to get a good view of the square and the river and Jesus Christ of Havana statue opposite. There is also a post office there to post your postcards and the church sells stamps. The stock exchange building is also there and there is a free art gallery just around the corner.

I love the old pharmacy La Reunion that is now a museum but still functional as a drug store for locals and tourists. There is another one that’s as pretty called Johnson drug store just on Obispo street.

I visited The Partagas factory where the Cuban cigars Habanos are made. You have to buy the tickets from the tour companies because they don’t sell it at the entrance. It’s 10CUC and you get an English guided tour by the staff there. It’s pretty cool as Cuba is famous for the best cigars and all 5 Habano brands including Romeo y Julieta, Montecristo, cohiba and Partagas are 100% hand rolled here. The best job in the cigar factory is quality control. They smoke the cigars all day to ensure they are consistent in quality and are paid almost like doctors, except they get 5 cigars a day for free for their own consumption.

If you love rum, you can also visit the Havana Club rum factory near the Russian church. It’s more of a museum because they don’t make rum there but they will show you the process and you do get a tasting of the 7 year rum. Rum is the same price everywhere but you can only buy their most expensive one for more than 1000 CUC here at the factory.

The good news with Cuba is, food is inexpensive compared to the earlier countries I’ve been. You can get good food at an affordable price in the old town where most of the restaurants congregate.

Here are a few I’ve tried.

Where can you get lobster for 12-15 CUCs (about US12-15)? I got 3 tails of lobsters when I ate at Taberna del Pescador and I thought that was quite a good deal. Need Cathedral square, there are many seafood restaurants that serve the same for about the same price. If you have cash to spare? One of the more famous places to eat is El Patio. But I didn’t see it’s charm but you can try it.

El Chanchullero has good tapas in a very cool place near the Capitolo and I tried the fish and shrimps mains which was good. It has a very nice vibe and you may need to queue but the staff are friendly and nice.

Just down the same street Brasil, El Dandy bar & galleria has cool music, cool decor and good tapas at a good price. I had the pimentos and pulled pork tacos and they were both good although I felt the pulled pork can have a bit more sauce, perhaps if you add more of the bean paste it would be perfect. My stomach doesn’t react well to beans but I’ve tasted it and it would most likely make the pork taco taste waaay softer and tastier.

I had lunch at a very large restaurant that has 3 floors but apparently each floor is a different name. Mine was called El D’Lirio and they serve Cuban food. A lot of locals seem to go there at night and they seem to sit on level 1 while I was pushed to level 2. The wait staff are very old school and the servings are huge. My vintage car tour buddies ate a pork main and another ate garlic shrimp for under 10 CUC each. I had the seafood stew for 15 CUC and the portion could have well been for 2. The upper levels serve Spanish and Italian food.

If you come to Havana and not drink a Daiquiri at Floridita, then you’ve never really been to Havana. I went on my first night on a Wednesday at around 7pm and it was crowded and had a band playing. I had a lobster and fish skewer and it was delicious. I had dinner here too on my last night and had the Hemingway plate and i really likes he lobster and prawns, less the fish. At 6 CUC a Daiquiri in the world’s top 8 bars in the world by Esquire, it is the place to be for at least a night or 2. The Floridita daiquiri is delicious, so delicious Ernest Hemingway drank here nightly. Don’t believe me? You’ll see him there when you’re having yours.

What about Mojitos you ask? Well, have the best one at Hotel Nacional and walk the grounds because it is one of the oldest and most beautiful hotel in Havana. If they charge you 5CUC for walking around, pay them because it comes with a drink and if you buy it at the bar, it costs 6 CUC, so you save a dollar. Remember to walk the grounds past the greens to find the fort near the Malecon, it was the real fort that was used to protect themselves against the US troops but if you’re claustrophobic, the tunnels are very narrow so you’ve been warned. The view from the malecon from the grounds are so nice and it will remind you of Fast & Furious because they raced there in their amazing vintage cars.

If you want to drink your Mojito at a very famous spot in Havana, head to La Bodeguita Del Medio. Many celebrities drank their mojitos here. You will see the very famous photo of Fidel shaking hands with Ernest Hemingway. The mojito there is good and it’s always crowded with live music playing. It apparently was the place where Hemingway had his first Mojito.

One of my favorite place to eat is at the very beautiful rooftop restaurant in El Cochinero, just beside fabrica de Arte. I had the grilled octopus, fish croquettes and Daiquiri there and it was delicious. The cheeseburger was overdone so that was the only dish I didn’t like but the ambience was amazing. It’s a great place to bring a date as you dine under the stars in amazing winter (dry but still warm) Havana weather. Remember to climb up the steps to see the chimney, it’s beautiful inside.

I ate at La Taberna Del Duque near my apartment and the food there is delicious too! You get a 3 course meal including wine and coffee for less than 10CUC!

If you so eat the local rice, beans and meat dish, remember to ask for the mojo (pronounced Mo Ho) sauce which is oil and garlic and it’s delicious on everything

Cubans love their helados because it’s so hot here. For the local ice cream, try Coppelia in the park near Havana Libre Hotel, closed on Mondays. The ice cream here is cheap as chips. So cheap the locals have 2-4 servings at a go. I was the only one who ordered 1 😂. At 15 CUP which is less than $1, why wouldn’t you? They have many flavors too and usually there is a queue and quite a wait sometimes. I went around lunch and i didn’t have to.

I really like a slightly pricier ice cream, supposedly the best at Helad’oro in Old Havana. The ice cream with cinnamon,white chocolate bits and honey(oshun) is delicious as is the peanut (Turron de Mani) and the Ferraro Rocher and Nutella. I went there 3 times and wished I discovered it on my first day!

Want a great view of Old Havana at a nice luxurious place? Head to the roof top bar at Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski. You can also stay here as it’s about 500 a night. The sunset here is wonderful. The drinks are reasonable (cheaper than Singapore!) I really like the Seleccion de Maestro by Havana club. It’s a special aged rum and it smells great and taste a bit like a very good whiskey. It’s very smooth on ice and it’s my favorite on top of the daiquiri and mojito. REALLY. You can find it in most bars and restaurants when you’ve had enough of the sugars in the cocktails. Maybe have it at other places because at Manzana, it’s 14 CUC a shot, whereas a mojito is just 6 CUC

Some essential tips before you travel

Cuba is a confusing place to get into. If you do your research on the internet before arrival, it will say you need to get an arrival card, pay money in the exiting country and you can’t fly from America etc etc. I flew in from Mexico via Interjet to Cuba and they did ask me to pay about US15 for an arrival card into Cuba and even asked me for a visa. I said I didn’t need one. Singaporeans, you don’t need a visa, apparently you don’t need the arrival card either as I breezed through immigration upon arrival in Cuba and the lady who stamped my passport said she didn’t need the card, just my red trusty Singaporean passport. I realized Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, LAX, New York, Alaska flies direct to Cuba from people I met. Half the people I meet dancing or on the tours are Americans. Florida is the closest US city to Cuba and apparently, every Cuban Family has at least 1 family member in Florida working and sending money home. So relax, just make sure you book your accommodation to Cuba and state your reason for travel and you are fine to go into Cuba with no problems.

For accommodation, I booked through Airbnb and stayed at a casa particulare called ‘Amaacuba’. It’s someone’s house and my host Yamile is so nice and makes me a wonderful breakfast daily. It’s also a nice walk to old Havana and you can even see the Melacon from the roof top. To get a discount on Airbnb, click here. There are many choices of houses here so you will be spoilt for choice based on your budget. I slept so well on the bed maybe because of the sea breeze, maybe because there is no WiFi in the house, or maybe it’s just from the dancing I do nightly 😂

WiFi, I gave up on it because the card from Etecsa works on a WiFi hotspot basis. They sell it in hotels and they charge anything from 3-10CUCs per hour for be card. If you buy it from the actual phone company and stand in line in the Obispo shop, it’s 1 CUC per hour. When you arrive to the airport, do not connect to the free internet because I suspect that was how I got my Facebook account hacked while I was in Cuba. So stay safe and wifiless for the time you’re here. The good news is, I do get WiFi in Yamile’s house for about 30 minutes per day. Cubans pay also, 1 CUC per hour for WiFi so it’s not cheap, considering a teacher earns 20 CUC a month and a Doctor 50 CUCs.

When at the airport, exchange or withdraw the money that you need for your days of stay from the machine near the information counter. You’ll need to scan your passport for this. The rate is comparable to the banks in town. You need to bring Euros, pounds, Canadian dollars or Swiss francs as it’s more acceptable than USD. You need to pay a 10% fee if you use USD. The best exchange rates are from the banks or the Cadeca (which is an exchange house with many branches) and not the hotels. The bank just requires a copy of your passport, the Cadeca requires your actual passport for money exchange. Cuba does not accept American Express or my Citibank Visa because it’s American. However, my HSBC card wasn’t accepted either so please bring more euros to exchange for CUCs as cash is king here. You will get Cuban Pesos, they call it MN, money Nacional or CUP here as change sometimes if you pay by CUC. 1 CUC is about 25 CUP and the local food joints and convenience stores will take CUPs but CUCs too but they may give you change in CUP if you pay by CUC, which isn’t a bad thing, just make sure you differentiate between the 2. CUP has heads on their notes and CUC has monuments. The value is very different so be careful when you get your change.

Collectivo taxis are shared taxis and are 1 CUC if you’re a tourist, unless you have 10 CUPs to give them. They usually go straight on the street you got them from but if you have a group of people let’s say to go to Vinales or Trinidad, you share the cost too. It’s usually a vintage car that’s not as well maintained as the ones that charge you 35-40CUCs an hour for the tours. Taxis that you take alone will cost you 5 CUC during the day and after 11, they will cost 8-15 so do bargain a little. I usually pay 5 to the salsa clubs and 10 back. Try not to pay more than 15CUC. You can also try the bici taxis which are bicycle taxis for an interesting experience.

From the airport to town, a taxi should be about 30CUC as you can only take the yellow taxis. Going to the airport 20-30 CUC as you can take any car, but you pay them before you reach the airport to prevent them from getting caught by the police as only yellow cabs are allowed to work at the airport.

my ride to the airport

I took a day trip to Vinales and it’s very different from Havana, on the west. The valley is Unesco and it’s very green and it’s also a cute old town and the people there make a special type of rum called Guayabita Del Pinar and also the main export of this town is tobacco so you get to taste local cigars, see how they’re grown and hand rolled and buy them for 10 for 10 CUC. I got my day trip via cubatours. You can also take a collectivo Taxi there if you’re staying the night. You can do horseriding in the valleys.

If I had more than 7 days in Cuba, I would have made my way to Trinidad as the trip itself will take 6 hours one way.

So you can safely make Cuba next on your list since it’s visa free for Singaporeans and it’s really one of the safest place to be in Central America. The only think you have to worry about if you’re a single traveler is the Cubans will always ask if you want a novio (boyfriend), salsa, mojito or buy a cigar on the street. Say NO to all for your safety. That was the first tip my bnb owner gave me. She said just say NO!

Cuba is really a lovely Central American destination and it’s so authentic! But don’t believe everything I say, you have to discover it yourself!

Never stop wandering!

XOXO

Stella

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